Guest author David Benjamin shares some of his favourite ways to use sequences in a teaching context.

As a maths teacher, I’ve found that sequences are a great way to engage and inspire mathematical reasoning. I thought I’d share some examples of sequences, and sequence-related activities, I’ve used with success in the past.

Following on from the series of ‘Pascal’s Triangle and its Secrets‘ posts, guest author David Benjamin shares another delightful piece of mathematics – this time relating to prime numbers.

At the time of writing the largest known prime number has $24862048$ digits. The number of digits does not reflect the true size of this prime but if we were to type it out at Times New Roman font size 12, it would reach approximately $51.5$ km, or about $32$ miles. Astonishing!

Patrick Laroche from Ocala, Florida discovered this Mersenne prime on December 7, 2018. I was surprised to discover that it’s exponent $82589933$ is the length of the hypotenuse of a primitive Pythagorean triple where $82589933^{2} = 30120165^{2} + 76901708^{2}$ as indeed are 8 of the exponents of those currently ranked from 1 to 10.

The Greek mathematician Euclid of Alexandria ($\sim$325 BC-265 BC) was arguably the first to prove that there are an infinite number of primes – and since then, people have been searching for new ones. Some do it for kudos, for the prize money, to test the power of computers and the need to find more of the large primes used to help protect the massive amount of data which is being moved around the internet.

Mersenne primes, named after the French monk Marin Mersenne, are of the form $2^{p} -1$, where the exponent $p$ is also prime. Mersenne primes are easier to test for primality, which is one reason we find so many large ones (all but one of the top ten known primes are Mersenne). When Mersenne primes are converted to binary they become a string of $1$s, which makes them suitable for computer algorithms and an excellent starting point for any search.

Since generally testing numbers for primality is slow, some have tried to find methods to produce primes using a formula. Euler’s quadratic polynomial $n^2+n+41$ produces this set of $40$ primes for $n = 0$ to $39$. When $n=40$, the polynomial produces the square number $1681$. Other prime-generating polynomials are listed in this Wolfram Mathworld entry.

The French mathematician LejeuneDirichlet proved that the linear polynomial $a+nb$ will produce an infinite set of primes if $a$ and $b$ are coprime for $n=0,1,2,3,4,…$. Then again, it also produces an infinite number of composite numbers! However, this gem: $224584605939537911 + 1813569659748930n$ produces 27 consecutive primes for $n=0$ to $n=26$ – and of course, all the primes are in arithmetic progression.

14 fruitful fractions

The primes are unpredictable, and become less common as they get larger. Consequently there is no formula that will generate all the prime numbers. However, there is a finite sequence of fractions, that – given an infinite amount of time – would generate all the primes, and in sequential order.

They are the fruitful fractions, created by the brilliant Liverpool-born mathematician, John Horton Conway (1937–2020) who, until his untimely death from complications related to COVID-19, was the John von Neumann Emeritus Professor in Applied and Computational Mathematics at Princeton University, New Jersey, USA.

The fruitful fractions are

$\frac{17}{91}$

$\frac{78}{85}$

$\frac{19}{51}$

$\frac{23}{38}$

$\frac{29}{33}$

$\frac{77}{29}$

$\frac{95}{23}$

$\frac{77}{19}$

$\frac{1}{17}$

$\frac{11}{13}$

$\frac{13}{11}$

$\frac{15}{44}$

$\frac{15}{2}$

$\frac{55}{1}$

A

B

C

D

E

F

G

H

I

J

K

L

M

N

The first time I encountered this set of fractions was in the wonderful book, The Book of Numbers, by Conway and Guy. I was so intrigued as to how Conway came up with his idea, I emailed him to ask. I was delighted to receive an outline of an explanation and even a second set of fractions, neither of which I can now find – it was 1996 and pre-cloud storage! But no worries… Conway explains everything in this lecture, which also demonstrates his passion for mathematics and his ability to express his ideas in a relaxed and humorous way, even when he searches for an error in his proof on 26 minutes. The lecture also includes an introduction to Conway’s computer language, FRACTRAN, which includes the statement:

‘It should now be obvious to you that you can write a one line fraction program that does almost anything, or one and a half lines if you want to be precise‘.

Using the fractions to find prime numbers

Here’s how the fractions are used to generate primes.

Start with the number $2$

Multiply by each of the fourteen fractions until you find one for which the product is an integer

Starting with this new integer, continue multiplying through the fractions until another integer is produced. (If this process reaches fraction $N=\frac{55}{1}$, the integer’s product with N is guaranteed to be another integer as N has a denominator of $1$; the process continues with this new integer being multiplied by fraction A)

Continue multiplying through the set to create more integers

When the integer is a power of $2$, its exponent will be a prime number.

The 19 steps needed to produce the first prime number are:

The successive primes are produced almost like magic – but the number of multiplications needed to produce each new prime becomes larger and larger, and so the method, though wonderfully inventive, is not at all efficient.

Edit: Since this article was first published, the exponent $82589933$ of the Laroche prime has been accepted as the next term in the sequence http://oeis.org/A112634

In Part 1 of this series we stated that Pascal is credited with being the founder of probability theory – but credit also needs to be given to other mathematicians, in particular the Italian polymath Girolamo Cardano.

The connection between probability and the numbers in Pascal’s triangle can be shown by looking at the outcomes when one or more coins are tossed. The table below, from row two, lists the outcomes for one, two and three unbiased coins.

$1$

$1$ H

$1$
T

$1$ HH

$2$ HT, TH

$1$
TT

$1$ HHH

$3$ HHT, HTH, THH

$3$ HTT, THT, TTH

$1$
TTT

$1$

$4$

$6$

$4$

$1$

Reading from the left: all possible outcomes, heads decreasing by one moving to the right.

For four coins there is $1$ outcome for four heads, $4$ outcomes for three heads and one tail, $6$ outcomes for two heads and two tails, $4$ outcomes for one head and three tails and one outcome for $4$ tails.

Row four shows us that when three unbiased coins are tossed, the probability they will land showing two heads and one tail in any order is $\frac{3}{1+3+3+1}=\frac{3}{8}$.

As the sum of the $n^{th}$ row is $2^{n}$, the number of possible outcomes for four coins is $2^4=16$, $32$ for five coins, $64$ for six coins, …

Quincunx

A Quincunx, or Galton Board, is named after the English explorer and anthropologist Francis Galton (1822-1911) – although this name is now less popular, because of Galton’s views on eugenics and racist attitudes.

The board is a triangular array of pegs. Balls are dropped onto the top peg and then bounce their way down to the bottom where they are collected in containers. Each time a ball hits one of the pegs, it bounces either left or right with an equal probability of $\frac{1}{2}$ and the balls collect in the containers to form the classic bell-shaped curve of the normal distribution.

The Quincunx is like Pascal’s triangle with pegs instead of numbers. The number on each peg represents the number of different paths a ball can take to reach that peg. If there are $10$ rows and the last row contains the containers, then the probability of landing in the third container from the right can be calculated by using the formula for the Binomial distribution.

The probability of landing in the third bin from the right is $120\times(\frac{1}{2})^3\times(\frac{1}{2})^7=\frac{15}{128}=0.1171875$, where $120$ is the number of different paths to that bin.

Statistics and permutations

The link between statistics and the triangle can be demonstrated using combinations. Consider these 5 mathematicians Euler, Pascal, Ramanujan, Hilbert and Conway and the possible teams for a three-legged race.

There are $10$ different teams of $3$:

EPR EPH EPC ERH ERC EHC PRH PRC PHC RHC

The formula to calculate the number of combinations is $_n{C}_r =\frac{n!}{r!(n-r)!}$ where $n$ represents the total we are choosing from, $r$ the number in the team and

In our example $n=5$, $r=3$ and $\frac{5!}{3!(5-3)!}=\frac{120}{6\times2}=10$

$_n{C}_r$ can be used to calculate the rows of Pascal’s triangle as shown below for row $6$, where in the calculation of $_5{C}_0$, $0!=1$

$_5{C}_0$

$_5{C}_1$

$_5{C}_2$

$_5{C}_3$

$_5{C}_4$

$_5{C}_5$

$1$

$5$

$10$

$10$

$5$

$1$

The animation film Of Dice and Men by John Weldon is a lovely way to introduce students to probability and statistics.

Pascal the polymath: mathematics, inventor, science and religion

Pascal’s father was a tax collector and in 1642 Blaise invented a mechanical calculator to assist his father. It was called the Pascaline and had a wheel with eight movable parts for dialing. Each part corresponded to a particular digit in a number. Numbers could be added by turning the wheels located along the bottom of the machine. Subtraction was carried out by exploiting a method called nines’ complement representation, the use of which allows subtraction to be reduced to addition. Each digit in the answer was displayed in a separate window. The workings of the Pascaline are demonstrated here.

The Musée des Arts et Métiers in Paris has one of the original Pascalines. The invention was not a commercial success – it was very expensive and often only purchased as a novelty rather than for use. Essentially, it was an adding machine. Subtraction was turned into a form of addition, as was multiplication. Division was done by repeated subtraction. Nines’ complement representation is still used in modern digital computers by a similar technique called ones’ complement which is used to represent negative numbers and hence perform subtraction in the same way as addition. Pascal did not discover this method but his calculator is the earliest known device to employ it. He continued to make improvements to his design until 1652.

Conic sections – normally just called conics – are obtained when a mathematical cone is sliced by a plane. Depending on the angle of the slice, the intersections create a circle, an ellipse, a parabola and a hyperbola. Conics have many applications including the wheel of course, ophthalmic, parabolic mirrors and reflectors, telescopes, searchlights and projectile motion.

Pascal wrote a short treatise, Essai pour les coniques (Essay on Conics) when only 16. In it he included what is known as Pascal’s Theorem which states that if a hexagon is inscribed in a conic section then the three intersection points of opposite sides lie on a straight line – the Pascal line. The theorem [also referred to as Pascal’s Hexagrammum Mysticum Theorem] was his first important mathematical discovery and a breakthrough in the field of projective geometry.

In 1647Pascal expanded on the work of the Italian physicist Evangelista Torricelli, the inventor of the barometer by writing Experiences nouvelles touchant le vide (New experiments with the vacuum) in which Pascal gave detailed rules to describe to what degree various liquids could be supported by air pressure. In 1971 the SI unit for pressure [equal to one newton per square metre] was named the pascal.

Also in 1647 he discovered Pascal’s Law of hydrostatics allowing for the development of the hydraulic press. Pascal himself used the principle to invent the syringe.

Pascal wrote an extremely influential theological work which was unfinished at the time of his death. It was posthumously called Pensées (Thoughts) and contained a detailed and coherent examination and defence of the Christian faith.

In 1655 Pascal was trying to invent a perpetual motion machine, a machine that continues to operate without drawing energy from an external source. The laws of physics now say this is impossible. Naturally he failed but he ended up inventing a basic roulette wheel, now upgraded and used in casinos as a game of chance.

The Swiss computer scientist Niklaus Emil Wirth, born in 1934, named one of his programming languages Pascal in honour of Blaise. Wirth along with Helmut Weber also designed the programming language named after another mathematician, Euler. [Recommended read: Euler: The Master of Us All ]

Pascal died in extreme pain at the young age of 39. He had a malignant growth in his stomach which had spread to his brain. Like many others, such as Évariste Galois and Franz Schubert, we are left wondering what else Pascal could have achieved had he lived longer. His work with Fermat into the calculus of probabilities helped the German mathematician Gottfried Leibniz [1646-1716] develop the infinitesimal calculus. Pascal is buried in the Saint-Étienne-du-Mont church in Paris and his death mask is held at the J. Paul Getty museum in Los Angeles, California.

If we highlight the multiples of any of the Natural numbers $\geq 2$ in Pascal’s triangle then they create a pattern of inverted triangles.

The images above are evocative of the Sierpinski sieve (also known as the Sierpinski gasket or Sierpinski’s triangle), a fractal described in 1915 by the Polish mathematician Waclaw Sierpiński (1882-1969).

Fractals are beautiful geometric shapes. Small, even down to (theoretically) infinitesimal areas of a fractal are identical to the entire shape. The Koch snowflake, generated geometrically by successive iterations on an equilateral triangle, is an example of a fractal. Julia sets and Mandelbrot sets are examples of fractals generated using recursion on complex functions. Many examples of fractals appear in nature, and the Polish-born French-American polymath Benoit Mandelbrot (1924-2010) suggested that fully developed turbulent flows are fractals.

It is a lovely surprise to discover that a simple fractal can be found inside Pascal’s triangle. It is achieved by considering all the numbers in the triangle modulo 2 – equivalent to colouring in only the multiples of 2, as in the first diagram at the top of the post. In this version, every odd number becomes $1$ and every even number becomes $0$, and by considering sufficiently many lines of the triangle, the Sierpinski pattern emerges.

Number patterns in the triangle

If we consider the first 32 rows of the mod$(2)$ version of the triangle as binary numbers: $1, 11, 101, 1111, 10001,…$ and convert them into decimal numbers, we obtain the sequence:

Interestingly, all members of this sequence are factors of the final term, $4294967295 = 2^{32} – 1$. Since this is one less than a power of two, it’s a Mersenne number. Why the first $31$ terms are all factors of the 32nd term is difficult to summarise here but there is a thread on StackExchange discussing what happens to the pattern after the $32nd$ term.

$4294967295$ has prime factorisation $3 \times 5 \times 17 \times 257 \times 65537$. These five prime factors are Fermat numbers – numbers of the form $2^{2^{n}}+1$ – in this case with $n = 0, 1, 2, 3$ and $4$. As of the time of writing these are the only known Fermat numbers which are also prime.

These patterns in the rows of the triangle are intriguing, and my own efforts to understand them have uncovered a few other interesting discoveries – notably, that while the 32nd term is not divisible by the 33rd, the 34th term is exactly 3 times the 33rd. The pairs of terms after that seem to alternate, as they do from the start of the sequence, between a non-integer ratio and a ratio of exactly 3, which I conjecture is a pattern that will continue.

Two welcome appearances

$e$ and $\pi$ are two of the most used transcendental numbers. The Swiss mathematician Leonhard Euler (1707-1783) connected them with the most beautiful equation, called Euler’s identity:

\[e^{i\pi}+1=0\]

There are many approximations connecting $e$, $\pi$ and other irrational numbers to be found here.

where $s_n$ is the product of the numbers on row $n$ of Pascal’s triangle. The proof can be found on Cut the Knot, part of the wonderful website of Dr Ron Knott.

In 2007 Jonas Castillo Toloza discovered a connection between $\pi$ and the reciprocals of the triangular numbers (which can be found on one of the diagonals of Pascal’s triangle) by proving

The series is divergent, but it crawls its way towards infinity, and takes $15092688622113788323693563264538101449859497$ terms just to pass a total of $100$.

The harmonic series can be used to create a version of Pascal’s triangle – the series itself is placed along the two leading diagonals, and the entries are then related by each being the difference of the fraction to its left, and the one diagonally above it and to its left. For example, $\frac{1}{30} = \frac{1}{5}-\frac{1}{6}$.

Dividing the first term in the $n^{th}$ row by every other term in that row creates the $n^{th}$ row of Pascal’s triangle. The table below shows the calculations for the $5^{th}$ row:

$\frac{1}{5}$

$\frac{1}{20}$

$\frac{1}{30}$

$\frac{1}{20}$

$\frac{1}{5}$

$\frac{1}{5}\div \frac{1}{5} =1$

$\frac{1}{5}\div \frac{1}{20} =4$

$\frac{1}{5}\div \frac{1}{30} =6$

$\frac{1}{5}\div \frac{1}{20} =4$

$\frac{1}{5}\div \frac{1}{5} =1$

In our next post, we’ll talk about probability and statistics in Pascal’s triangle, and consider some of Pascal’s other contributions.

Leonardo Pisano (1170-1250), now universally known as Fibonacci, was born in Pisa, Italy, where he was also living at the time of his death. He was educated in north Africa as his father worked there, representing the merchants of the Republic of Pisa when they were trading in Bugia, now called Béjaïa, a Mediterranean port in Algeria.

Fibonacci returned to Pisa in about 1200 where he wrote a number of important books. His book Liber abaci introduced the Hindu-Arabic place-valued decimal system and the Arabic numerals we now use. Books and any copies had to be handwritten, as it predated the printing press. Fibonacci is now mostly remembered for introducing the Fibonacci numbers and sequence which appeared in the third section of Liber abaci as a problem about rabbits:

A certain man put a pair of rabbits in a place surrounded on all sides by a wall. How many pairs of rabbits can be produced from that pair in a year if it is supposed that every month each pair begets a new pair which from the second month on becomes productive?

The resulting sequence is $1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, 34, 55…$ (although Fibonacci did not include the first term in the book).

The ratio of successive terms converges on the Golden Ratio, $\phi$.

$\phi$ is an irrational number and is the positive solution of the quadratic equation $x^2 – x – 1 = 0$ Hence, since $\phi$ is the root of an integer polynomial, it is not transcendental, unlike $\pi$.

Indeed, convergence to $\phi$ remains true if we start with any pair of Natural numbers and follow the same pattern where any term after the second is the sum of the previous two terms.

Terms

Ratio

3

2.33333…

7

1.428571…

10

1.7

17

1.58823…

27

1.62962…

44

1.61363…

71

1.61971…

115

1.61739…

186

1.61827…

301

1.61794…

487

1.61806…

788

1.61802…

1275

1.61803…

Convergence when the first term is smaller than the second term

Terms

Ratio

5

0.6

3

2.66666…

8

1.375

11

1.72727…

19

1.57894…

30

1.63333…

49

1.61224…

79

1.62025…

128

1.61718…

207

1.61835…

335

1.61791…

542

1.61808…

877

1.61801…

Convergence when the first term is larger than the second term

Terms

Ratio

2

0.5

1

3

3

1.33333…

4

1.75

7

1.57142…

11

1.36363…

18

1.61111…

29

1.62068…

47

1.61702…

76

1.61842…

123

1.61788…

199

1.61809…

322

1.61801…

This is called the Lucas Sequence.

In Liber abaci, Fibonacci included other numeracy problems – on perfect numbers, the Chinese remainder theorem and on the sum of arithmetic and geometric series. He wrote a book on geometry, Practica geometriae, and perhaps his most impressive work was Liber quadratorum in which he included methods for finding Pythagorean triples. But it is for his sequence for which he is mainly remembered.

The Fibonacci Sequence in Pascal’s triangle

Finding out that the Fibonacci sequence can be found in Pascal’s triangle was a delight for me and I find it hard to think it is just a coincidence. To view Fibonacci’s sequence we can display the triangle as a right-angled triangle.

The Golden ratio in art, music and architecture

My interest in mathematics began when the film Donald Duck in Mathmagic Land was shown to our class in my first year at secondary school in Burnage, Manchester, England and as a teacher of mathematics I showed it in the lesson before Christmas to many year 7 groups.

The film illustrates how the Golden Rectangle has been used by artists and architects throughout history as well as connections between the golden ratio and music. The film mimics some of the novel Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll, the pseudonym of the mathematician Charles Lutwidge Dodgson.

Further connections between the golden ratio and music can be found here and between the ratio and a Stradivarius violin here:

The Lady Blunt shown above shows the measurements connected to the golden ratio:

Below is a geometric interpretation of the golden ratio and the golden rectangle:

The Lucas numbers in Pascal’s triangle

The French mathematician François Édouard Anatole Lucas (1842-1891) served as an artillery officer in the Franco-Prussian War, and subsequently became professor of mathematics at the Lycée Saint Louis and then professor of mathematics at the Lycée Charlemagne, both in Paris. Lucas did a lot of work on number theory and was particularly interested in the Fibonacci sequence and devised the test for Mersenne primes which is still used today.

Lucas died of erysipelas (a bacterial skin infection) a few days after a freak accident. He was at a banquet when a fragment of a dropped plate flew up and cut his cheek.

His sequence, the Lucas sequence, begins with the pair of numbers $2$ and $1$ and its terms are generated in the same way as for the Fibonacci sequence.

There are a number of connections between the Fibonacci sequence and the Lucas sequence. The $3^{rd}$ Lucas number is the sum of the $1^{st}$ and $3^{rd}$ Fibonacci number, the $4^{th}$ is the sum of the $2^{nd}$ and $4^{th}$, the $5^{th}$ is the sum of the $3^{rd}$ and $5^{th}$, the $6^{th}$ is the sum of the $4^{th}$ and $6^{th}$,…

Division of the Fibonacci terms $2n$ and $n$ beginning with the $2^{nd}$ term yields the Lucas terms

$2^{nd} \div 1^{st} = 1 \div 1 = 1$

$4^{th} \div 2^{nd} = 3 \div 1 = 3$

$6^{th} \div 3^{rd} = 8 \div 2 = 4$

$8^{th} \div 4^{th} = 21 \div 3 = 7$

$10^{th} \div 5^{th} = 55 \div 5 = 11$,..

With some manipulation of Pascal’s triangle and some basic arithmetic, we can find the Lucas numbers in the triangle. We begin by setting out the triangle as below and sum the columns to obtain the Fibonacci sequence

We now multiply each Pascal number by its column number and divide by its row number, starting with row $1$ column $1$ and then sum the new entries in each column. The first few calculations are shown below:

Generally, $\displaystyle\frac{\phi^n -(\frac{1}{\phi})^n}{\phi -(\frac{1}{\phi})}$ is the formula for the $n^{th}$ Fibonacci number, $\displaystyle\frac{\phi^n +(\frac{1}{\phi})^n}{\phi +(\frac{1}{\phi})}$ is the formula for the $n^{th}$ Lucas number and $\phi^n =\displaystyle \frac{L_n+ \sqrt5 \times F_n}{2}$, where $L_n$ and $F_n$ represent the $n^{th}$ Lucas and Fibonacci numbers respectively.

In the next part, we’ll consider some more connections between the triangle and particular numbers, and types of numbers.

There are many sequences of numbers to be found in Pascal’s triangle. The Natural numbers occur in the second diagonal, running in either direction, and the next two diagonals after that contain other important sequences:

Sequences in the diagonals

There are many sequences of numbers to be found in Pascal’s triangle. The Natural numbers occur in the second diagonal, running in either direction, and the next two diagonals after that contain other important sequences:

This is the first in a series of guest posts by David Benjamin, exploring the secrets of Pascal’s Triangle.

The triangle of Natural numbers below contains the first seven rows of what is called Pascal’s triangle. Each row begins and ends with the number 1, and each of the remaining numbers, from the third row onwards, is the sum of the two numbers ‘above’: